Our team at Castos has been “doing OKRs” for 6 quarters now.
In that time, our process has changed a lot.
From what was a very undirected process when we were a small team, to a very delegated, unopinionated process at our peak team size, to now a very personal conversation about our teams’ goals, we’ve run the gammet.
With the benefit of hindsight, running the spectrum of setups we’ve been through has been really helpful. Without it, I wouldn’t know the upsides or drawbacks of some of the approaches we’ve tried and the good parts we’ve taken from each iteration.
The tough thing about only doing something once a quarter is you don’t get many chances to experiment with different setups. This kind of frequency is pretty unique in startups and in ours for sure.
Baseline Reading On OKRs
If you’re just getting started on OKRs there are two books I’d definitely check out to get acquainted with the idea of ORKs and generally how to set them.
These books are really different, but between the two, they “box in” the concepts of OKRs you’ll need to start implementing them in your own business.
I won’t try to summarize either book but recommend you read both if you’re serious about OKRs.
Instead, I’ll share some lessons we’ve learned and the hidden benefits I’ve seen as CEO of structured goal setting in general, and in particular as the leader of a small, distributed tech team.
What Has Worked Well
We set goals every quarter.
This has been the case for the last 18+ months, and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
We track our goals in a Google Sheet.
Nothing too fancy, but something that everyone on the team has visibility to and OKR owners can update (even automate data inputs). We use this template currently.
We report on them at the beginning of every team meeting.
Not our weekly “All Hands” but in the individual group meetings throughout the week. If we’re doing it right then conversations arising from OKRs should dictate the rest of the meeting’s direction.
We give ourselves the grace to change or cancel them if the situation changes.
Two quarters ago, we threw all of our Dev team OKRs out the window, stopped all new feature work, and just focused on squashing bugs and improving the platform.
The result was that our initial OKRs got deleted, and we had one single focus for the rest of the quarter. This is the only time it’s happened across all teams in a year and a half.
What Hasn’t Worked For Us
Too Much Overhead
In some ways OKRs are just “too much” for small teams. I think that if you’re a team of < 8 people you don’t need something as structured as OKRs because it’s likely that there is any team with more than 2 people.
In these circumstances I would set individual goals (call them OKRs if you want) for a quarter and be done with it.
Wrong Focus => Bad Outcomes
If you get the goal setting (the KR => Key Result) part of OKRs wrong then the result of all of the work that your team does in the quarter is wrong too.
Worse, it’s amplified, because you should be going from some kind of present state at the beginning of the quarter to one that’s quite different 90 days later. If the end state you end up at isn’t the one you meant to arrive at then you set a bad KR.
Qualitative Key Results
We have a saying that “If a Key Result doesn’t have a number it’s not a Key Result”.
This is really hard for some teams, like Support, Success, and Product/Development. Attributing a quantitative goal to a largely qualitative group can lead to encouraging bad practices.
We give ourselves a lot of grace in saying that while some KRs may not be perfect, they’re the best we have because they’re so measurable.
To us Measurable is better than Accurate any way.
Top Down OKR Setting
In the first few iterations of our ORKs I was the one setting all of the OKRs for each team. This was a mistake.
But, at the time it made sense: I know what OKRs and I have the vision of where we want to go.
The issue with this is nobody likes being told what to do and what to focus on.
What is infinitely more impactful is to empower your team with the knowledge about OKRs that you have and instill the vision of what our better future state will be, and figure out together what OKRs we need to set as a group to get there.
This is not a simple or quick process, but I believe is the biggest improvement we’ve made in the whole process.
Ownership – having OKRs has given a huge amount of ownership to all team members. Even those who aren’t in leadership positions.
Accountability – I challenge team members, and they definitely challenge me when we deviate our focus from OKRs.
Visibility – Everyone knows how they’re doing and how the rest of the team is doing all the time. This is great even if things aren’t going great.
Hindsight – we spend more than half of our time setting new OKRs by talking about how the previous quarter’s set of OKRs turned out. What do we want to keep, what do we want to toss out?
Build In Flexibility – OKRs are a compass, not a roadmap. They should have room for interpretation and the ability to pivot within the lense of a goal throughout a quarter.
Ease Into OKRs
Whether it’s OKRs, the EOS and their Rocks, or KPIs (geeze, acronym soup there) I think that goal setting and being intentional at least once a quarter about deciding on your areas of focus is hugely important.
Once you’ve taken the time to think critically about what areas of the business you need to focus on it’s easier to put on blinders to all the million other things that come up within a quarter.
In that moment of sanity when doing this strategic work you decided what’s important, and what isn’t. If your business is relatively stable then that should not change in 90 days.
For me the most important thing is that you have to be comfortable with whatever system you choose for settting goals, tracking and measuring them, and then iterating on that each quarter.
I encourage you to pick the best from what I’ve said, what others have written in books, and implement the system you think is best for you and your team in your situation. And just know that it will undoubtedly evolve over time.
That’s a good thing, it means you’re learning.